Facebook’s latest, subtlest ads are coming straight into your News Feed

Facebook has just announced that sponsored stories, a subtle form of advertising, are coming directly into your News Feed in a whole new way.

Sponsored stories are a little different from straight-up advertisements, but they’re still commercial, bought-and-sold content that comes from brands to unwitting consumers. Previously, advertisers had to buy right-hand-column ad space for their sponsored stories; now, the News Feed is being sold separately as ad inventory on its own.

And it’s pretty valuable inventory, too. As daily Facebook users, we’ve trained our eyes to tune out the visual noise — ads, spam, etc. — in the right hand column. But sponsored stories, even though they’re from brands, won’t look and feel like a normal ad. You might not recognize it as an ad even after you’ve seen it.

Facebook defines these stories as “posts from your friends or Pages on Facebook that a business, organization or individual has paid to highlight.” This could be your buddy’s checkin at an In-N-Out Burger; it could be a Like for a brand’s Page. It might be something with a little more context. But the point is, the brand is paying to put this stuff in your feed, content that would otherwise probably not even be on you radar.

The latest evolution in Facebook marketing means that these sponsored stories won’t be in the right-hand column, where you would expect to see Facebook ads; rather, they’ll be front and center, right along with legit stories from your friends and family members.

And yes, this goes for the desktop site as well as the mobile site and apps.

The mobile ad creep has been expected for a while now — especially given the constant complaint from pundits that Facebook can’t monetize its mobile channels and the current risk that poses to the company’s stock price.

“Marketers will have the opportunity to buy sponsored stories in News Feed separately from other placements,” a Facebook rep wrote to VentureBeat in an email.

“As companies are promoting services more frequently on mobile, this option gives them the opportunity to focus on specific placements that will impact them most directly.”

Brands can choose to place their sponsored stories in the News Feed on desktop only, on mobile only, or on both.

These sponsored stories” won’t be as overt (or annoying) as most advertising. After all, they fall under the banner of marketing or even public relations more than they do advertising per se. As Facebook design guru (and Timeline chief) Sam Lessin told us in a recent conversation about brands on Facebook, “The key with [branded content on Facebook] is storytelling and expression.”

Lessin said that in order to be successful, Facebook needs to ensure a good experience for everyone — both the brands that pay for Facebook’s servers and the end users that make it worth their while to do so. “Brands don’t want to be overly promotional; in the long-term, they know it’s a turn-off to people… A lot of brands aren’t great storytellers, but the best ones are.”


VentureBeat is studying the state of marketing technology. Chime in, and we’ll share the data.